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Shel Holtz has an interesting post on his blog that details a recent dialogue on GM’s Fastlane blog. In it, CEO Bob Lutz explains why he’s been relatively quiet in recent days (or weeks?) and refutes various claims about GM’s purported lack of commitment to the blog. Lutz should get kudos for addressing the criticisms head-on and being candid and real – two critical requirements to be credible as a blogger. This debate reminds me that the best advice I ever heard on etiquette for blogging is that you should treat it as a friendly dinner conversation. That means being direct and honest, but never rude or defensive. It also means being responsive to the discussion and answering questions directed at you – to avoid those would be totally ridiculous and disingenuous in a dinner setting, and they are equally so online.

Read an interesting post by Dave McLure that makes a strong case that PR simply does not “get” the Web 2.0 revolution. I don’t want to pile on, but I have to agree with many of his points. I think the most important issue is not one of talent or even willingness, but one of knowledge. As I’ve reported before, far too many PR professionals are woefully ignorant of emerging techonology and trends that impact communication; that’s ok (I guess) if you are an accountant or pilot, but not if you are being paid to help companies communicate, buld their brand and sell their products. And it’s not ok when entire generations of consumers are getting information and joining conversations outside traditional media. The irony is that some PR agencies can easily leverage expertise in the area of new media - notably those that are in global holding companies and can partner with a range of specialized, cutting-edge boutiques - but too often these firms are not closely integrated with the PR teams. The only PR agencies I have seen that truly “get it” are those that have brought Web 2.0 expertise in the house, so to speak, causing the entire agency to learn new tricks and join the revolution. Here’s hoping the rest of the PR community gets on board.  

Steve Rubel (of Micro Persuasion) recently shared an interesting take on recent developments in online search technology and the increasing sophistication of aggregator systems. Check out the post here. Google (surprised?) seems to be leaving Technorati and others in the dust by blurring the vertical lines of older search/aggregator tools and providing a more responsive, comprehensive search engine. I’m not a tech geek so I can’t explain all the details, but I certainly realize the inherent importance of effective online aggregator and search tools. The more online applications are added, the more content is created, the more people jump online will only make it more critical for users to be able to easily access and organize the information they want, no matter where it was originally posted or created. Think of it as the 21st century library system.

Much has been written and said about the inherent power of crowdsourcing, or the collective merit of millions of individual online users collaborating or contributing their opinions and knowledge. The reality of this theory really came to me during research for my upcoming trip to Kilimanjaro.

As I confirmed my travel arrangements, it became clear I would have to spend the night at Nairobi’s somewhat notorious airport. So I started an online search to try and find out the do’s and don’ts, and any realistic sleeping options. Not surprisingly, the formal sources (airport website, Kenyan Airlines) had little relevant information – unless you count laudatory and useless promotional materials. But I found several sites where customers had posted their comments and advice, including this one. Though individual comments or suggestions in isolation were of limited use, I was able to get a good, credible picture of my options (and of the definite “don’ts”) by scanning a number of comments. (I was able to confirm that there are sleeping quarters in the airport, what they cost, where they are located and even the best location for a quiet night.) Up to several years ago, it would have been difficult if not impossible to find this information. Just another example of the power of the Web, and of the collective widsom of online citizens.

Just read an interesting report on corporate intranets in the Wall Street Journal – of all places. ( http://wsj.com/reports) The premise was that too many intranets are “due for a makeover” and that far too few are delivering on the huge potential of the available technology. Based on my observations over the years (on both the agency and corporate side) I unfortunately have to concur. The most egregrious flaws: too much clutter, clunky navigation, inadequate search capability, stale content, a surfeit of corporate hype or fluff, and a confusing tangle of competing or unrelated sites. Too many intranets don’t even effectively serve their most elemental function – to act as an information portal for employees.

There are some obvious fixes: adding RSS capability, robust collaboration tools (like wikis), use of vlogs and podcasts, and elimination of stale or rogue sites. But the best recipe for success is to apply the same rule that drives success in the Web 2.0 environment – put yourself in the shoes (or sandals?) of your users…in this case the employees. At too many companies (including some I have worked with/at) employees can’t find what they need, can’t pull what they want, can’t collaborate or communicate with their colleagues and/or can’t contribute to the site. And presumably, some employees are simply turned off by the ill-advised layout “vision” of the site designers. All of these shortcomings can be addressed by leveraging emerging technology to make intranets a more engaging, user-friendly, personalized and collaborative environment. But ultimately, it’s about building intranets for the employees, not for the CEO.  

I just returned from NYC, where I attended a very productive conference hosted by the Insidedge team from Golin/Harris (http://insidedge.net), which specializes in employee communications and change management. [Full disclosure: I was co-founder of the Insidedge group and spent five great years with the team.] One of the salient themes was the impact of Web 2.0 technology (and philosophy) on employee communications. As in other recent conferences, I was struck by the wide gulf between companies that are fully embracing new tools and those that seem to be hoping all this talk of blogs and wikis would just go away. A telling symptom of this digital divide: several of these communication executives (all from major companies) had never heard of Second Life.

Perhaps the most interesting presentation was by Christopher Barger, until recently chief blogger at IBM and now serving the same function at General Motors. Chris’ remarks on IBM’s embrace of Web 2.0 tools was eye-opening; IBM serves as a great example of a very progressive approach to leveraging new technology to enhance internal communications – witness their laid-back approach to employee blogs and advanced use of collaboration tools. But as became clear during the presentations and discussions, one size does not fit all. What works for IBM may not work at, say, an auto manufacturer with an older, unionized workforce. (Good luck Chris!) Like in marketing or politics, you have to tailor your approach to your specific “customers.” But the ultimate lesson here is that all companies – no matter what their culture, demographics or industry – need to investigate and leverage relevant Web 2.0 tools. If not, as the new tech-savvy generations enter the workforce, companies risk being badly out of sync with the new communication model. And any communication team worth its salt should want to be leading the wave, rather than dragging the anchor.

Just read a comprehensive report in BusinessWeek’s online edition on Second Life. (I still haven’t figured out how to properly include links so in the interim here is the URL – www.businessweek.com/technology/special_reports/20070416virtuallife.htm .) It’s a great primer for those who want to understand what SL is all about – and why it matters. The report thankfully goes beyond the usual discussions on marketing and branding implications and includes some good examples of how some companies (notably Intel and Raytheon) are leveraging the virtual environment with their employees through dynamic collaboration and 3-D training. This is essential reading for internal communication consultants struggling to see beyond the hype and understand how they can actually use the technology. I was also surprised to learn there are actually a number of viable alternatives to SL.

A couple of recent documentaries raised some critical questions about the importance – and willingness or capability - of the media’s role as the impartial fourth estate.

A few weeks ago, PBS’s Frontline presented a cogent report on how the mainstream American media essentially gave the Bush administration a free pass during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Facing strong pressure by Congress and seemingly unstoppable momentum towards war – fueled deftly by the Bush team - few if any prominent journalists questioned the conventional wisdom or conducted the muckracking that is required for solid, impartial journalism. Those that did were shunned and/or relegated to the back pages. This despite the fact that there were large holes in much of the evidence – if anybody bothered to look. In hindsight, of course, we’ve learned that the arguments for war turned out to be largely paper tigers. Call that one a big whiff for the mainstream media (who join the CIA, the Bush team and the Pentagon on the “Great Blunders of History” club.)

More recently, we saw a similar dynamic in the polemic around global warming. In this case, the Bush team – and several popular journalists and members of Congress - are fighting, in the face of overwhelming evidence and intense criticism, the idea that global warming is a crisis that demands immediate attention. Notwithstanding your views on the issue – or the dubious tactics of the “just say no” Bush team, which are reminisent of the tobacco industry denials of the past two decades – what is striking is the virulent criticism of anybody who would dare to contradict the popular views on global warming.

Whatever the issue, it’s critical that major news outlets question and investigate, that they reach beyond the usual Belt Way pundits, that they take a stand even when their perspective is not popular with large segments of the population (or the Bush adminstration!) Even with the advent of citizen journalists, 24-hour global news coverage and the massive accessibility of information online, journalists need to serve as an impartial source of news that can stand the shifting winds of popular opinion. This is particularly true of bellweather outlets like the New York Times and CNN. Is this realistic in an age where media companies are cutting to the bone and coverage is becoming more partisan by the minute? I may be an idealist, but I believe it is.

I attended a great communications conference last week – one which thankfully featured more senior practitioners than the usual consultants hacking their magic bullets – and I was struck by the wide range of understanding and involvement in digital media tools. Some folks still seemed very hesitant to develop corporate/CEO blogs – and were trying to run their analysis through traditional risk-reward paradigm – while others were intent on catching the wave. The discussion was catalyzed when Bill Jensen, who leads an eponymous consulting group, laid out the fundamental shifts in how information is shared online, particularly by the Gen Y cohort. In short, anyone who believes we still control the flow of relevant information – or that we should – is missing the boat. Clearly, some in the audience were not willing to let go of the old model and embrace this scary new environment populated with citizen journalists, vibrant social networks and self-appointed blog pundits. This was particularly true of those involved in internal/employee communications. I suspect this will change in the coming months. Though caution and deliberation is certainly warranted before making the digital leap – it’s better to figure out why and how you will engage in Web 2.0 technology than just jumping in – PR professionals will quickly lose relevance and credibility if they don’t become fluent in this new environment. By the way – I take no personal credit for being knee-deep in this brave new world; I have the good fortune to be working with very smart, creative people who are willing to take risks and understand the huge potential of the web.

Cheers

Well, after an amazing dive into the world of digital media the last year or so, I’ve decided to make the plunge myself. I know I’ve learned alot from blogs and social networks the past year or so, so I figure I might as well join the conversation – notably about the evolving field of communications (or PR as some call it). Hopefully I can provide a (somewhat) unique perspective and make a few good online friends along the way. Cheers

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